History Is Fine And Scientists Are Co-Owners

Recently I blogged about historians of science who chronicle scientific debates of the past neutrally and leave it to the reader to find out who (if anyone) turned out to be right in the end. This approach pisses me off because I’m a scientist and I believe that the main point of such debates – past and current – is to advance science. I don’t enjoy the implication of neutralist history of science, that it’s all just historically contingent talk and the process isn’t taking us anywhere.

Historian of science Darin Hayton of Haverford College in Pennsylvania didn’t like my viewpoint and wrote a rather angry blog entry about it. There’s no comments section on the blog – I’m guessing because his blog is on Haverford’s server and they’re afraid of libel or hate speech. (But really, getting comments is half the fun of blogging!) Instead Dr. Hayton kindly agreed to publish a guest entry of mine where I explained my position. And now he has replied.

He opens by ascribing a rather odd opinion to me: that all intellectually defensible activities must show how past scientific debates have been resolved in the present. That is not my opinion. (Is this a copy editing error?) I do think however that the history of science should, as one part if its remit.

Dr. Hayton then appears to say that he rejects the idea that through scientific studies we gain better and more accurate knowledge about the world over time. The wording isn’t quite clear to me, but if this is what he believes, then I don’t understand what he thinks that scholars have to offer the world. Or why we should be paid.

I do believe, as he suggests, that in Enlightenment science only those activities that contribute to accumulation of knowledge are worthwhile. One such activity is scientific debate. Debate leading to expert consensus is how provisional scientific truth is established, tested, modified and built upon.

Dr. Hayton points out correctly that scientists of the past didn’t quite have the same long-term agenda as today’s scientists have. But as I pointed out to him, many or most scientists of today feel that we are continuing a centuries-old project aiming to find out what the world is like. And we are a considerable chunk of his potential readership. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone working in an abstruse field (like mine) to alienate potential readers. The customer is always right.

I’m not asking Dr. Hayton to ”sanitize” Isaac Newton’s work or ”excize God” from it. I’m not asking neutralist historians of science to remove anything from what they’re writing. I’m asking them to recognise that although scientists of the present are certainly not exclusive owners of Newton & Co, we do deserve to be counted among the stakeholders. We are way more interested in the history of science than most people. I’m not asking for hagiography. I just want a history of science that recognises that scientific debate actually produces more accurate knowledge of the world over time. Just like debates among historians of science produce more accurate knowledge about, say, Renaissance astrology.

Finally, I don’t know what Dr. Hayton means when he calls astrology a system of knowledge rather than a belief system. I just hope he takes his flu shot in the autumn, not acupuncture, and uses a skilled non-alternative mechanic to keep his car in good shape. Because if you can’t tell knowledge from belief, the real world that Dr. Hayton and I study comes up from behind and kicks your ass.


25 thoughts on “History Is Fine And Scientists Are Co-Owners

  1. Martin, this is cheap of you–and, if I may say, unprofessional. I don’t know Dr. Hayton; I’m not a historian of science. However I think you’ve passed beyond the standards of your discipline and are thinking with your ego. You are not a historian; you are an archaeologist. Historians attempt to find facts from a different series of sources than archaeologists. If maintaining a sense of neutrality is a tool that allows Hayton to find those facts, then so be it.


  2. On the other hand, if Dr. Hayton should suffer back pain or tendinitis, I hope he will get acupuncture rather than a flu shot. So what? Astrology is by modern standards not at all scientific, but from the time of the Mayans and Babylonians to the early Renaissance, most of the people who did groundbreaking work in astronomy were also believers in and practitioners of some form of astrology. Therefore, while there is no reason for astrology to be taught in astronomy classes, it is entirely appropriate for a class on the history of astronomy to explain how those premodern astronomers viewed the world and what questions interested them. There are undoubtedly aspects of today’s “scientific” dogma that will be seen as laughable in the future – yet from today’s perspective, they undeniably qualify as knowledge.


    • Actually, acupuncture does nothing for back pain or tendinitis either.

      Yes, scientific truth is always provisional and is continually improved. But that’s no reason for us to disregard the current scientific consensus and instead believe whatever we fancy. It is the best current knowledge.


  3. I think Dr. Hayton doesn’t see himself as a historian of Science. Instead he sees himself as a historian of people and ideas that have subsequently been adopted by an irrelevant field, Science. What scientists think about Newton is irrelevant to what he wants to understand about Newton.


    • Rosie, I believe you’re right. And I believe Dr. Hayton’s work would appeal to more readers if he were willing to accommodate the modern-scientist / science fan target demographic.


  4. Dr Hayton seems to accept and then misrepresent your position, which seems to be characteristic his writing on his blog (hopefully not elsewhere). He gives the examples of Reagan and Mitterand using astrologers, and then states that “most rulers today rely upon other systems of knowledge”, impliedly scientific or rational. Is that what Kim Jong Un is doing, or Bush & Blair when they played together before invading Iraq? I’d agree that the Blair governments ‘Dodgy Dossier’ was “another system of knowledge’ but it certainly wasn’t one of the towering achievements of the Enlightenment! At present we have the leaders of two of the worlds most powerful nations calling each other names over an issue potentially capable of scientific analysis.


  5. Neil, you take my thoughts and put them in more eloquent writing than I ever could!
    Alas, if you have read the history books of Barbara Tuchman, you will know that “facts” and “analysis” have very little room in world politics.
    BTW the choice of astrology as an example is hilarious, since there are two conflicting forms of astrology traditions (the Chinese and the Babylonian/Western).
    -Evenrtually, leaders who stray too far from objective reality (or what we may call consensus reality) will go with a bang rather than a whimper, so the current mess can in a sense be regarded as a world-scale experiment to test political assumptions.
    Lysenkoism has been tested and killed millions, so we can probably consider it a failure.
    The assumtion “banks need no regulations” is an ongoing experiment that has been running since the late nineties, but the experiment “managers” are still not ready to draw any conclusions 🙂


  6. Don’t diss Leo. It has a couple of nice bright stars..
    -“What scientists think about Newton is irrelevant to what he wants to understand about Newton.” -Sociology of the educated classes in Newton’s England? What?


  7. I really have to question whether what engineers want to know about the history of Roman engineering is any different from what the Roman engineers wanted to know, using very largely the same terms of reference.

    It’s a great way to polarise, isn’t it? Take a statement from another blog, don’t comment on it there, rephrase it on your own blog, and in the process put a whole lot of words into the blogger’s mouth that he didn’t say, then mount a long winded defence against what he didn’t say. Give him the opportunity to reply/clarify then do exactly the same thing again – put words in his mouth that he didn’t say and respond to that. So in the process you get to demonise the blogger and tilt the ‘discussion’ in your direction. Realists will be concerned by the lack of rigour in phrasing the debate, but that’s not the audience they are aiming for, I suspect.


  8. I read a fair number of old, outdated science and history of science books. Sometimes they are a lot of fun. I have an old book on the Bohr pre-quantum theory of the atom. You can really see him wrestling with the problem, and some of his orbitals are really weird, not at all like the spdf stuff we know today. A modern re-issue of this book would surely note that quantum theory totally eclipsed Bohr’s early work, but a historian of science would find it fascinating.

    Then again, I’m probably the lone reader for such works as The Triumph of Phlogiston or Aether: Light Carrier of the Future.


  9. I have not read Darin Hayton. I would just like to add my two cents.
    I can think of two ways of presenting the history of a science. One is to tell how new theories have supplanted each other (and the reasons for this) in a brief narrative aimed at the general reader (and the general researcher in that same field).
    Another is to do a deep immersion in the time of various scientists. Taking Newton as an example, it would be necessary to describe the religious beliefs dominant in his time, and the mysticism that even Newton indulged in. You would almost certainly need a detailed description of England, and of the class system and of the Public School system. In the latter case, it would be a history of society and the zeitgeist rather than simply a history of physics. I am not familiar with English terminology but it seems to me we are talking about two different things.
    — — — — — — — — — — — —
    We get a better understanding of the world over time. Some belief systems quickly fail the Darwin test (sarcasm): “Cult leader ‘Black Jesus’ killed http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23896401


  10. Kaleberg, did you get to “Ylem” as the dense primeval substance before the universe began expanding? (this is a pre-Gamow concept).
    And geology books from the early seventies still had the pre-Wegener narrative presented in parallel with the plate tectonic theory.


  11. Birger, the trouble is that at a lot of times and places, the empirical study of nature is part of a shared project with other things which we would classify as mysticism or theology, and that even in the last hundred years or so, politics and institutions have a lot to do with why some theories are popular and others are not. Often the faction which was least wrong on one question was going beyond the evidence or had very strange views on another question. The Babylonians did wonderful astronomy and collected economic and historical data (we can convert dates in their calendar to ours day-to-day! A few months after their data was translated, the best Greek astronomers adopted some of their discoveries! They collected data on prices for 700 years!), but the purpose of their research was to understand the messages from the gods encoded in the movements of the planets. Just talking about the astronomy might please some people, but it would not be very honest.


  12. Typing as a chemist who has turned to history of science through an interest in the medieval period, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    “This approach pisses me off because I’m a scientist and I believe that the main point of such debates – past and current – is to advance science. I don’t enjoy the implication of neutralist history of science, that it’s all just historically contingent talk and the process isn’t taking us anywhere.”

    The purpose of the discipline known as history is generally to understand what and how and why things happened in the past, generally through the study of the written and related records of the time. This overlaps with archaeology, which asks and tries to answer the same questions by means of the surviving artefacts from the past.
    Pretty much by definition, history in general has nothing whatsoever to do with advancing science. It’s a different discipline studying different parts of reality in a different way. Yes, history of science can study why the ‘correct’ answer appeared at a specific time, or didn’t appear at a specific time, but precisely which is the scientifically correct answer is simply irrelevant. Anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot.


  13. Although I aught to add that there are bad historians of science just as there are bad archaeologists regarding whom the accusations of pointless relativism are correst, but the original post and short summary here do a poor job of making any substantial argument.


  14. Or you could provide some different definitions of science and history and their purposes? That would be more helpful. I don’t actually see any difference in how we both view modern science; what I find puzzling is your insistence that history must feed into modern science, rather that do it’s own thing.

    I’m pretty sure that it has been implicit in the majority of history of science that I have read that scientific endeavours, especially the modern variety, lead to better knowledge of the world. But then my main field of interest is the medieval period through the 16th century, when astrology was actually an accurate guide to how the world worked (well not really but people thought it was, which is the point), and 4 elements theory was the correct approach to physical reality. From that starting point it seems ludicrous for an author to then spend time pointing out why astrology and 4 elements theory is wrong, especially if their audience is modern scientists who already know that such concepts are wrong.


  15. 1. I’m not insisting that history must do anything. I’m describing the kind of history-of-science that I want. Welcome to my personal blog.

    2. You are right, if we’re talking about astrology and the four elements then everybody knows how those debates concluded. I’m talking about historical studies of e.g. 1920s Scandinavian archaeology. They are very close to home to me.


  16. There’s a risk of acquiring a sense of superiority when learning of history and previous findings, theories which are now believed inaccurate. Yet one is not in the present on a sure footing: science, scientific consensus is overturned with new discovery, or embrace of theory previously scorned.


    • Actually, scientific consensus, once attained, is rarely dramatically overturned. And scorned theories are rarely embraced. Typically, the scientific viewpoint on an issue is modified by smaller and smaller steps over time.


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